Morana and the Underworld

Artist: Unknown

As the winter months stretch on, many of us will continue to stare longingly at bare tree branches in the hopes that we will see green shoots sprouting. We look for this as a sign that the chill in the air is going to subside and that new life is coming. However, we should still take this time to appreciate the dead—not push it away. And, with that in mind, I wish to take you on a short journey to Nav, the Slavic world of the dead, and introduce you to Morana, goddess of winter and death.

 Morana is often seen carrying a scythe or sickle that she uses to cut the threads of life. In physical appearance, Morana, upon first glance, is terrifying; her skin is pale, she has long dark, stringy hair, her nails are long and sharp, and, sometimes, she’s even said to have fangs. However, this is not her only form, as Morana also is described as a young maiden. Yet, when she first appears to you, most often times you’ll get the ugly, old crone; it isn’t until you show an appreciation for her and a lack of fear for all she stands for that you will see the beautiful, maiden side to her.

Winter is considered to be the time of Morana. She brings the snow, hail, and cold winds with her. The thought of winter coming from Morana is mostly attributed to her relationship with Dazbog, the sun god. As it’s told, Morana seduces Dazbog, and pulls him down into her embrace. With Dazbog distracted, daylight lessens, and we are thrown into the darker, colder winter months. Unfortunately, in later parts to the myth, it is said that when Dazbog moved on from Morana, she poisoned him. As punishment for this, she was then banished to Nav.

Nav isn’t a dark or evil place, though. While it does contain its demons and dark parts, there is much good surrounding it as well. Remember Lada? The goddess of love (who also happens to be Morana’s mother) whom I’ve talked about in a prior post? She also resides in the underworld. And, while this might be shocking to hear, it’s important to know this for one key reason—new life comes from within; be it flowers coming up from the cold earth connected to the below underworld, or a new view on yourself through introspection. So, with that in the forefront of your mind, hopefully it eases some of the internalized fears you might have about the underworld. However, if you still wish for spring to just get here already, there is one more concept imbedded within these beliefs that I know you will appreciate—reincarnation. Reincarnation is something widely believed in in Slavic tradition. It’s thought that your soul could indeed return as anything from a descendant to even an animal. However, it’s still important to remember that, without death, there will be no rebirth.

Why I Picked Up The Call

As I have explained in my previous post (The Calling of Shiva), I wasn’t born into a Hindu family and hadn’t had any exposure to Hindu culture up until I met my husband. My father still doesn’t really understand why I chose Shiva over the Christian God, so this post is as much for him as it is for the regular readers of the site.

To understand why I (and many others I have met later in my life) wholeheartedly chose Hinduism you need to take a look at its teachings of responsibility.

Personal responsibility

Hinduism does not have a Savior in the manner Christianity has. Yes, there are stories of gods and goddesses saving mankind and the world in general from various dangers. But on a personal level, one is not considered a good person simply because they are worshiping a particular god. One will not get a better next life, achieve moksha (no more births) or ‘go to Heaven’ simply because they worshiped a particular deity.

One needs to get a grip over one’s own life and actions and lead a mindful existence, paying attention to every action one makes and thinking over how that action will affect one’s – and others’ – karma.

This theory of personal responsibility is what I like the most in Hinduism. Expecting salvation from outside is, at least in my opinion, futile. In my opinion gods, angels, saints, all the beneficial spirits can give us help, they can give us strength and encouragement to do the best we can, but if we ourselves are not working on it, then it is not worth a peanut. In a simple example, think of a drug addict. They can attend rehab, go to meetings and listen to people who came clear, get help from specialist doctors. But if they themselves don’t want to come clear, none of these external influences will help them. We ourselves have to want to be ‘good’. We have to work on our faults and make the most of what we have. No worries if the most is not much. There are many lives ahead of us, we don’t need to do everything at once. But the most it should be.

Reincarnation aka Samsara

This brings me to the second thing I really like about Hindu philosophy: reincarnation and that eventually everyone will reach perfection and attain God. Hinduism teaches that we are born here to experience human existence as a whole: in all its darkness and glory. In my view, every soul comes here to Earth to experience a certain set of things in each life. In one life it might be being a serial killer who had abusive parents, in another to be a perfect mother of ten children, and anything in-between. A soul needs to experience every aspect of Life, and every emotion available to us humans. When one has experienced every facet of light and darkness then nothing ties the soul to earthly existence, it has no desires left, and it can peacefully return to the Creator – to draw an analogy, it can go to Heaven.

For some it might take just a few lives; for some, hundreds and thousands. But eventually, everyone will reach salvation, where they don’t have to be born again and can join the Creator once more, in perfect peace and contentment. Everyone.

That means even The Worst Person in History has the potential to achieve union with God, through hard work on themselves, possibly in the course of many incarnations.

That makes so much more sense to me than having Heaven and Hell and chucking everyone into the latter who wasn’t mature enough to lead a ‘good’ life at their first go. And it just isn’t fair to expect everyone to be on the same level of ‘good’, irrespective of their circumstances. Yes, some Christians believe in Purgatory so there’s that. But the expectations are still very high, knowing human nature.

Karma, dharma, and lessons

Another reason I like Hinduism is the theory of karma, dharma, and lessons we need to learn through lives. It ties in with both personal responsibility and samsara but I wanted to talk about it separately. I might even write a post about it later, who knows. But to cut it short, here’s what it all means to me.

Karma means in very simple terms the law of action and reaction. You are a jerk, you get people treating you like one. Now put a twist on it: you are a jerk in this life, but that’s what you came here to do, that’s how you advance on your journey and that’s how you help others on theirs: it’s your dharma, your life task. Therefore, you go on being a jerk and people who expect karma to work like a policeman are surprised that you lead a happy life despite being a horrible person. Alas, karma is not a policeman, but after you die, you might be assigned the task to suffer from a similar ‘jerk’ in your next life – and learn what you have to from it: humility, standing up for yourself, or active rebellion.

Again, this does not mean that you don’t have to try and become a better person because being a jerk is “your life’s lesson”; if you realise that you hurt others by being a jerk, and change your behaviour, then it might just save you a life’s worth of lessons right there.

I think that overcoming our basic nature is one big step upward on the ladder of samsara – but I’ll write more about this later. What I like about all this is that there are countless opportunities for us to see behind the curtains and understand why things are happening and accept our lessons with grace.

Polytheistic world view

Hinduism has millions of gods. To a Hindu person, one god extra does not make a difference, and that is why initially early Christians, Persians, and Muslims could live in India in peace. No one cares what you believe in, or if you believe in any god at all. If you are a good egg, you can stay and you will be welcomed. Of course, by now this notion has been corrupted and many people forgot how to be tolerant towards others. Why, now there are Hindu Extremists out there! What a laughable notion! Only a Buddhist extremist would be further off the edges of sanity. Anyway, this is Kali Yuga, the age of darkness for you. I do find it refreshing that none of the gods say that he or she is the only one people should worship. In Hinduism, only demons say such things, and they are punished for their audacity at the end. Not that I want to draw a parallel with any other religion. And this is why sometimes you can even find statues of Mother Mary on Hindu altars, like for example in Skanda Vale in Wales? If you haven’t heard of Skanda Vale yet, you must google them.

I believe that from every religion, each and every god exists, and each and every one of them are facets of the one creator that has no personality nor a name, who we cannot imagine or describe by human words. Which facet you worship makes no difference.

The gods

Until now I wrote about philosophy and things that are more or less understandable why someone like me would be impressed by them. But here’s the thing: Hindu gods are weird. They have extra limbs, extra eyes, extra heads – sometimes that of an animal – they dress strangely – if they are dressed at all… it’s all very confusing to someone not versed in art history or art interpretation. One day my dad called me up and asked me why does Shiva have four arms and snakes all over him. My first, somewhat dumb reaction was… why not? He’s a god, he can look like anything he wants to! Or rather, any way the artist sees him.

It doesn’t really matter how an artist has painted the portraits of gods; they don’t really have bodies the way we do, therefore they don’t really have a form the way we do. They can appear to us humans any way they like, be it a man with four arms or a talking pillar of scorching fire.

And especially Shiva is said to be formless energy – that’s why he is represented by the lingam, or a pillar of fire too. Of course, his four arms on pictures have a meaning, as have all the other weird stuff, too. That belongs to art interpretation, and I will get to it in another post. So to ask why Hindu gods look the way they do is the same thing as asking why the Christian God is an old man with a beard sitting on top of the clouds. It’s because this is the image that over time has been widely accepted to represent that particular spirit. Nothing more, nothing less.

But why did I choose one of the weirdest of the weird gods, the one full of contradictions? Why not the (seemingly) simple Vishnu with his protective nature? Why not cute Ganesha who would remove all obstacles from my way? Why the dangerous Destroyer?

Well, as for myself, and many other ladies as I came to know later, the energy of Shiva has a magnetic effect on us. There is a certain primordial strength radiating from him, the suggestion of power, control over himself, a feeling of ancientness, of wisdom and fairness, of serenity and boundlessness. He is beautiful, inside and out. Some might even say, the perfect man – in India, girls pray to Shiva for a good husband because he is considered to be the best husband there is even though his true form is pure energy. More on this in a later post. As I said in the “Calling of Shiva“, his image as Nataraj grabbed me by the collar from early childhood, and the more I know about him the more I love him.

I have never got the same feeling of safety and peace from any other god what I have now with him. This is something no one can take away and something I would never want to give up. I may work with other deities, I might even keep an icon on my altar (I do actually). But Shiva has his place deeply embedded in my heart, for this life and the rest.

©Katalin Patnaik 2019